The Law in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

The Book of Romans is one of the more consequential epistles written by Paul because it directly engages with questions pertaining to political philosophy, rather than simply theological questions. The letter, Paul’s longest, appears to have been written to the Jews of Rome who were conflicted about whether or not to follow “The Way” while also obeying the law of Moses. This tension between faith in the forthcoming “kingdom of heaven” and obedience to the law is at the heart of the text. In other words, to what extent does faith in God come into conflict with adherence to the laws of the city? The Catholics, following from St. Augustine in the City of God, find a balance in giving unto God what is his, and giving unto Caesar what is his. In the Catholic tradition, virtuous obedience to the law of the city can be held alongside joyful waiting for the “kingdom of heaven.” According to the tradition, people are mere pilgrims on earth, longing to shed their mortal bodies and find perfection in another realm. However, the fallibility of the city of man and its burdensome, imperfect laws led to later revolutions, such as the Protestant/Lutheran revolution in which virtue is achieved “through faith alone” – Martin Luther controversially added the word “alone” to the original Greek text. Thus faith, or belief (“credo” coming down to us from Latin) is primary in modern Protestant Christian thinking.

At any rate, Paul’s epistle appears to have been written while Paul was in Corinth, the ancient capital of the Roman empire in the Greek eastern provinces (Paul describes his situation in Chapter 15). Paul was intending to travel through Rome to Spain. He has sent his emissary, Phoebe, ahead to prepare the way for him to come to Rome, along with Priscilla and Aquila and many other early “converts” as well as Paul’s scribe, Tertius who actually wrote the letter. Paul was a Jew of the diaspora. He was from Tarsus in south-central Turkey. He likely spoke Palestinian Aramaic, and possibly Syriac (there were different dialects of Aramaic spoken throughout the region), as well as fluency in Greek (the learned language of the day) and perhaps even Biblical Hebrew (he frequently quotes scriptures from the Septuagint, however).

Chronologically, some have suggested that Romans comes last in the lineage of Paul’s letters: first and second letters to the Thessalonians, letter to the Galatians, and the first and second letters to the Corinthians. Others have suggested the lengthy Roman letter to be his last writing. Paul appears never to have made it to Spain, or at least it was never documented. He eventually winds up in Jerusalem, is arrested as a rabble-rouser, and is condemned to a martyr’s death, so tradition holds.

Appropriately the letter is focused on Rome and the Romans, the universal city. As the old Hellenistic world had died out, and the vast universal empire of Rome took hold, the particular regional deities and customs had become less stark. Put another, theology was responsive to political realities, and God became universal. Thus there was need for a unifying message of hope, a “gospel” or a “way” that could compete with the many theological options available to people throughout the Mediterranean. Paul created that new way. Many of his other letters were addressed to the eastern Greek cities. His conflicts with the west, in particular with other followers of “the way” around Jerusalem had grown far too bitter.

The central problem of Romans is Paul’s need to synthesize the new teaching of “The Way” with the old teaching of the Hebrew scriptures. Does Jesus’s moral teaching stand in opposition to Mosaic law? What is better: faith or obedience to the law? When will the prophesied kingdom of heaven arrive? His letters often address particular issues and challenges facing particular ministries throughout the Aegean.

Paul claims Jesus’s teaching is open to all people -a call to both the “wise and the foolish” (1:14) to experience God’s righteousness and Paul quotes Habbakuk 2:4 – “the righteous shall live by faith” – here is where Martin Luther adds the word “alone.”

Paul includes a proclamation of the evils of the world, an illusory place filled with sexual immorality, and they have “no excuse” for God’s “invisible” or “unseen” works have been present throughout human history. Thus, according to Paul, everyone has knowledge of God. No one is without blame. Since all people are equally blame-worthy, none should cast judgement upon another (2:1) for God will repay each one (quoting Psalms) according to what they have done. To those who persistently seek to do good, God will reward them with eternal life, and those who persistently seek to be self-serving, God will bring wrath and fury (reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible). God does not show “favoritism” – a wholly different account of God from the Torah who has selected a “chosen people”.

At 2:12-13 Paul makes some extraordinary claims. All those who sin apart from the law (Mosaic law) will perish, and all those who sin under the law will be punished. It is not enough for those who merely hear the law, but the law must be followed and obeyed. According to Paul, the righteous are not revolutionaries, but rather observers of the law. However, the law comes from God, for men are fallible. According to Paul, no teacher is greater than God.

Is there, then, any value to the law? Is there any value to being a practicing Jew (as Paul asks)?

Paul argues that the law is important because is makes ‘people conscious of their sin’ (3:20). The law delineates what is good from what is evil, and brings a certain degree of shame upon people. In contrast, in Plato’s Laws the Athenian Stranger sees the purpose of the greatest laws as encouraging virtue and righteousness, not simply making people aware of their innate evil. In the Laws, the tension between theology and politics is harmonized, as the goal of the city is encourage people to honor the gods, fear their leaders, and be virtuous citizens, however first they must desire to be molded into virtuous citizens, hence the importance of education. To the many, theology serves as a better teacher as the masses of people prefer solid answers to questions and submission to the divine will of a shepherd, rather than open-ended inquiry.

As Socrates suggests in the Minos, the law points us toward the nature of being. Laws are an attempt to bring to light a discovery of what is, however laws are in need of a divine justification. To Paul, as with Socrates’s unnamed comrade in the Minos, law is prescriptive of the ills of mankind. However, since mankind’s ills seem to know no end, law is unending, eternal, like the unearthly paradise that is so longed for by followers of “The Way.” Perhaps in this rejection of Earthly, Epicurean delights we see vague traces of Stoicism.

Paul reorients the theological teaching to focus on faith (Credo) as the law is merely a “sign” of a person’s faith. But without law, there is wrath and all things are permitted, as there is no transgression. That is to say, law is a great teacher of the people. In Chapter 7, Paul claims he would not have known not to covet something or someone, were it not for the law. Apart from the law there is no sin, and the law, therefore, breeds covetousness and other sins. Continuing in Chapter 7, which is perhaps the most significant section as it is an exposition and a confession of Paul as to his sinful nature. He admits that he has desires within himself to break the law. He is like a “house divided” in some ways, as he longs to do what is good, but he acts in accordance with sin. He laments at his “wretched” status as a man, but thankfully he is saved because sin is merely the nature of the “flesh” while internally, Paul desires God. He struggles with the injunction from Jesus to “be ye, therefore, perfect.” Without the law, he is a mere hedonist. As long as people are alive, they are beholden to the law. When they die, they are beholden to the Spirit rather than the “written code.”

Paul’s torturous soul, one which had once violently persecuted the Nazarene sectarians, until a sudden and inexplicable moment of conversion on the road to Damascus, actually longs to be rid of its internal war within itself and in an effort to do so, he finds blame in the laws. The laws of Moses, he claims, are outdated but they did once serve a purpose. People no longer need to adhere to the old law. Law now is internal, existential, and not a written code or a series of injunctions. Thus Paul drew a line in the sand between himself, a preacher to both Jews and Gentiles throughout the East, and the Christ-sect in Jerusalem, a more moderate following of Jews. Paul preaches a rejection of the ways of this world, yet later in Romans he praises the donations he has received which he plans to bring back to Jerusalem. He is truly a dual-man, some might even call him a hypocrite. What better way to gain followers, and therefore power, money, and influence, than by preaching a forthcoming kingdom (i.e. a message of hope) and building a regime devoid of laws and open to anyone located anywhere.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, he is revealed to be a somewhat radically insecure person, criticizing people he disagrees with in 2 Corinthians and Galatians. He is particularly keen on protecting his version of the new “Way” and spreading his power and influence throughout the region. In many ways, as Nietzsche says, Paul is the “first Christian” (Nietzsche also calls Paul the “annihilator of the laws”). How radical, for example, for Paul to include uncircumcised Gentiles into his new church!

According to Paul, the righteousness of Jesus/God is not a license for all people to suddenly begin sinning en masse. Instead, he offers a kind of duality: a way of the flesh (which must lamentably be tolerated and controlled while on earth), and the desirable way to the kingdom of heaven. However, life after death is preferable.

He closes Romans with a plea to the congregation to be good, follow goodness, and serve enemies with love. Also he instructs everyone to follow and obey the political authorities of this world, for no authority is given without God -a remarkable claim! He instructs them to do this in Chapter 12 and pay all debts they owe (recall the discussion at the outset of Plato’s Republic regarding the payment of debts). For the “hour is near” when the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The question of the law, and how to behave for followers of “The Way” remains a very much unsettled question in Romans.

For this reading I used the King James Version of the Bible.

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